Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Wannsee und Potsdam | Germany Part 2

From Berlin, we went to Wannsee via the S1 S-Bahn line, and then from Wannsee to Potsdam on the S7 line. We saw trees and lakes, houses and palaces with history, and generally had a good time walking around outside. More pictures, fewer words this time.

Footpath near the Wannsee S-Bahn station

For Berliners past and present, Wannsee the locality and the lakes Großer Wannsee and Kleiner Wannsee were great weekend getaways. Though we visited on a grey and slightly chilly day, it's easy to imagine people at leisure around the lakes, on yachts, and dining al fresco.

Between Großer Wannsee and Kleiner Wannsee

Our itinerary that day was based on sites EAL visited and enjoyed on their spring field trip class. Hence, I didn't really know or research either Wannsee or Potsdam beforehand, and was completely ignorant of Max Liebermann, the Wannsee Conference, and Sanssouci. My superficial understanding of the history of Prussia and its King Friedrich II and desire to see some nice gardens and architecture made Potsdam a necessary visit, but I was otherwise clueless.

These were beautiful, scenic places and I filled my camera roll with photos. However, as always, there was many history lessons to be had, and much reflection to do.

Upper left: yacht club on Großer Wannsee
Upper right: swan on Kleiner Wannsee
Lower left: a crow in Potsdam
Lower right: the Brandenburger Tor of Potdsam

Here is a link to Max Liebermann's WikiArt page. Shortly after walking around the lakes, we made our way through the lindens (so many lindens) to the house, gardens, and studio of Max Liebermann, a German Impressionist painter and sculptor. He was born in 1847, died in 1935, and lived in a house on the shore of Großer Wannsee.

Garden in the Max Liebermann villa

This was the garden of an Impressionist painter with many flowers and vegetables I had never seen before. It was nice to stroll around and look at everything, learn what the hell kohlrabi was and how EAL ate it, and watch hobby painters at work. I can't remember what admission into the Max Liebermann property was, but there was a student discount and it was fairly reasonable.

Left: his garden
Right: an otter

The house was essentially a gallery of his paintings, sketches, and his studio, with an exhibit detailing his life and his troubles. Max Liebermann gained acclaim through his paintings of the leisure weekender culture at Wannsee, of recreation and biergarten culture and open air dining, among other subjects. He was a member and then president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, but resigned in protest when they adopted policies against exhibiting art by Jewish painters.

The house facing the lake

Liebermann himself was Jewish, and in that last decade of his life, he was confronted with ridicule, disdain, and hatred. His art, seen as apolitical and decadent by his contemporaries, no longer had a place in a Berlin slowly coming under Nazi rule. He died in 1935 unhappy and demoralized. His wife, Martha, killed herself the night before her deportation in 1943.

By the lake

See Liebermann's art for yourself. The paintings displayed in his house were mostly gardens and al fresco dining, biergartens accompanied by notes on the social culture of leisurely weekends in Wannsee and Berlin.

The whole place was quick to see entirely, Our next stop was the House of the Wannsee Conference a short walk away.

Beautiful house in Wannsee

Look at this beautiful house. This is not the House of the Wannsee Conference, but just one of its neighbors.

House of the Wannsee Conference

Now look at this beautiful house. On first entry through the gate, we went into a small exhibit on Jewish historian Joseph Wulf, who survived imprisonment at Auschwitz and in the subsequent decades wrote books about the Third Reich and advocated for a Holocaust memorial at the Wannsee House. He committed suicide in 1973; on 1992, the House of the Wannsee Conference is now a Holocaust museum and memorial, and contains a library and media collection bearing Wulf's name.

Why here?

In 1942, senior Nazi officials were called to meet in this villa in Wannsee to discuss the support and implementation of the final solution to the Jewish problem. Reynard Heydrich of the SS proposed a plan to deport all Jews to extermination camps in Poland and kill them there.

A constant theme for me in this trip was to confront the abstract march of names, vocabulary words, places, and events and recognize how they happened and how they have changed the world afterwards.

The museum is straightforward, heavy, thorough, and moving. It begins with the onset of anti-Semitism, the social/political/economic context of it from medieval Christendom to the late 19th century. It is a history of the Third Reich and its effect on Jews in Germany, Poland, and the rest of Europe; it exhaustively recounts the Wannsee Conference and the Holocaust.

I am borrowing an idea from EAL's entry on Berlin and Wannsee, but I'm sure many visitors to this villa think the same thing. Executives from all branches of military and government of the Third Reich gathered in this beautiful place set in the middle of a garden to plan a genocide.

Wannsee was a lot, but an important part of my trip. Admission is free for students, but donations are encouraged.

Next, we went to Potsdam.

A villa in Sanssouci

King Friedrich II of Prussia/Frederick II/Friedrich der Große/Frederick the Great/Alte Fritz/Old Fritz is a prominent figure in German history. As a military genius, he was credited for successes in the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years' War, the first partition of Poland was a great figure in German history, credited for his martial success in the Seven Years' War, and cast Prussian sovereignty over much of what today is Germany. As an Enlightenment monarch and expert statesman, he forged alliances, modernized Prussia, promoted the arts and culture, reformed politics, and built the military to prestige, prominence, and maximum efficiency. Old Fritz made the Kingdom of Prussia, an army with a country, and built his palace at Sanssouci -- in French, sans souci is 'no worries.'

By the way, I use Sanssouci here to refer to both the actual palace called Sanssouci, and its surroundings, Sanssouci park. Context clues, though.

 Approaching Schloss Sanssouci

Frederick the Great, however, was an unusual person with a tragic history. In his youth, his great interest in the arts, playing the flute, the classics, and philosophy over warfare drew the ire of his authoritarian father, King Frederick William I. When he was eighteen, Frederick II attempted to run away to England with his lover Hans Hermann von Katte. They were discovered and charged with treason; Frederick William I sentenced Katte to death and ordered his son watch the decapitation. Depression followed and he eventually rejoined the Prussian army. At 28, he ascended the throne.

A weird bird

As EAL told me, Old Fritz was a weird person. He was forced to marry, but put his queen in Charlottenburg in Berlin, fathered no children, and spent almost all of his time in Sanssouci. He liked nature, animals, his dogs, and disliked people. He disliked German language, art, and culture and favored French and Italian. Apparently, he had a strange sense of humor. A true Enlightenment man and example of absolutist power, he was friends and corresponded with Voltaire.

Sanssouci, opulently Rococo inside and out, and the various monuments and follies on its grounds, show the personality of this unique king. I have heard it likened to Versailles, but having never been into Versailles nor visited the interior of Sanssouci (closed that day), I can't make a comparison.

Greenery before Schloss Sanssouci

I'm a broken record at this point. A large theme of early modern architecture and design was sovereignty and control of man over nature. Examples: meticulous and lovely gardens, fountains, allegory and mythological motifs, etc, etc. As an Enlightenment palace, Sanssouci is no exception.

Looking to and from Schloss Sanssouci

Frederick the Great once had flowers, vegetables, trees, and vineyards on these terraces, conflating his romanticization of the French and Italians, anthropocentrism, and Prussian efficiency. It was a crisp day with great sunshine at that point, and made for a good stroll around the grounds. By the way, admission into Sanssouci Park is free, but visits into the palaces do cost money.

Obverse and reverse of the palace

Not much Neoclassicism around Sanssouci, but these columns do have that look to them.

The frilly Rococo style, the decorative buildings and follies, the lavish court were all his respite from his kingly responsibilities. He kept a strict personal schedule even in old age, and gave flute concerts.

Left: der Historischen Mühle
Right: a pretty meadow on the way to Ruinenberg

There is also a very old mill from Frederick II's day with an amusing and false origin story:

The legend goes that Frederick the Great was being disturbed by the clatter of the mill sails and offered to buy the mill from its miller, Johann William Grävenitz. When he refused, the king is supposed to have threatened: "Does he not know that I can take the mill away from him by virtue of my royal power without paying one groschen for it?" Whereupon the miller is supposed to have replied: "Of course, your majesty, your majesty could easily do that, if – begging your pardon – it were not for the Supreme Court in Berlin."
Either way, it's an interesting addition to Sanssouci, imposing in its ruined state, and gives some rustic flair to the otherwise frivolous place.

Left: an ornate gazebo
Right: the headstone of Old Fritz, potatoes included

Frederick the Great did not really have friends, and requested to be buried at Sanssouci with his dogs. That request was not granted and he was buried at the Potsdam Garrison Church with Frederick William. His remains were hidden in WWII, moved, moved again, and then finally returned to his never-used crypt at Sanssouci on a terrace by the vineyard next to his dogs.

Among Frederick II's accomplishments was introducing potatoes to Prussia and heavily encouraging people to eat them. Now, what is German food without potatoes? That's why there are potatoes on his headstone.


Across a large meadow and directly seen from the courtyard of Sanssouci is Ruinenberg. What is Ruinenberg if not a product of the King of Prussia's sense of humor? What are these ancient Roman ruins doing in northern Germany?

The water tank in question

Frederick the Great built this giant water tank at the top of a hill to power the many fountains of Sanssouci, and then decorated the hill with these artificial ruins. Because hydraulics and engineering were difficult, the project never came to be. Said Fritz to his friend Voltaire:
I wanted to have a water jet in my garden: Euler calculated the force of the wheels necessary to raise the water to a reservoir, from where it should fall back through channels, finally spurting out in Sans Souci. My mill was carried out geometrically and could not raise a mouthful of water closer than fifty paces to the reservoir. Vanity of vanities! Vanity of geometry!

Supposedly, the ruins were both a reflection of Frederick's interest in the classics, and also as some kind of a reminder about looking towards the future, or the impermanence of greatness. Something like that. Either way, they're an interesting addition to Sanssouci and certainly worth a visit.

Way in the distance is Sanssouci Palace. What did Frederick the Great think about when he stared out at the fake ruins he built? I can only guess.

Left: me at Ruinenberg
Right: Drachenhaus

After Ruinenberg, we wandered around Sanssouci Park looking at as many other buildings as we could hit. Sanssouci would be great on bike since everything is fairly spread out, but the weather was good, not too hot, and there was hardly anyone else there.

Left: entering the Orangerie
Right: woods near Ruinenberg

Here's a fact for those unfamiliar with European palaces like myself: an orangery was a building dedicated to the cultivation and protection of orange and other fruit trees from the winter. In spite of the photo on the left, the orangeries seen on this trip were the color of orange juice. This one in particular was closed, with people inside setting up for a concert of some kind.


Upper: looking out from the Orangerie
Lower: a vineyard with Drachenhaus in the background

By the Orangerie was another little vineyard. Fritz took his Italian inspiration seriously. The Dragon House in the background is now a restaurant.


Another feature of palaces were grottos, rooms or buildings with a mythological oceanic theme, oftentimes incorporating real seashells in their decoration. These buildings also included fountains and other water follies, but that was not successfully installed in Frederick's time.


Belvederes are other features of elaborate palace complexes, and are characterized by having a nice view. This particular Belvedere sat atop a hill and looked almost dreamlike as we approached it through a tall grass meadow.

Walking to the Neues Palais

We were walking off big lunches of Döner, which I highly, highly recommend. They're the German analog of burritos in California, only more common and better tasting. As we were heading out of Sanssouci Park and into the grounds of the Neues Palais, which Frederick II built later in his life, I was just about ready to fall asleep, some combination of jet lag and food coma.

Neues Palais

Compare and contrast the Neues Palais with the other buildings in Sanssouci. The Baroque architecture is imposing, powerful, and stately. Gone is the Rococo prettiness and cute terraces of Sanssouci: by now, Prussia is a great power in Europe, a force to be reckoned with.

Anyhow, I was so tired that I ended up taking a nap on a bench in front of the palace.

Neues Palais again

I suppose it's only fair to mention that though we walked around and ate in Potsdam, the bulk of our time there was spent in Sanssouci. The following day when I was in Berlin, I overheard a tour guide advising against visiting Sanssouci on such an overcast day and to wait for the sun. Though I agree that a sunny picnic in the park would have been wonderful, it would have been a serious chore to walk around so much in the heat and without easy access to water.

If we had the entire day in Sanssouci, I would have loved to tour the inside of the palace, particularly to see Frederick II's picture gallery. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the day there and encourage you to stop in Wannsee and Potsdam if you are already visiting Berlin.

Cool font at the Wannsee S-Bahn station

Because I've wrapped up our adventures in Berlin, I'll be back next time with Hamburg. Auf wiedersehen!


  1. Gotta love student discounts! I'm always amazed by how much you know about places. Do you study up before you go visit, or learn while you're there, or look it up later? :o -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

    1. I don't really study up, but a lot of this info came from my sibling EAL who learned it during their field trip class. The personal history of Friedrich II comes from there, and the political/military stuff comes from high school history class that I refresh and cross check with Wikipedia and the Sanssouci website.

      The WWII stuff is mostly from high school and fact checked with Wikipedia. Kind of a lazy source, but it's good enough for me. A large portion of the info is also from signs and plaques and exhibits at each of these places, especially the Wannsee sites.

  2. I'm really regretting not having been to Sanssouci, it looks amazing and the park would be so fun to walk around! I love the artificial ruins. I would totally install artificial ruins on my grounds if I were rich and had grounds. Frederick II has an interesting story, I've not heard it before. Introducing potatoes is something he should be applauded for.

    1. Ruinenberg was a real treat and Friedrich had the right idea. I think he's such a prominent figure in Prussian history that his personal history is so overshadowed. Prussian history is so martially-oriented, or at least how I learned it in school. The big names like Frederick the Great, the entire Hohenzollern house, Otto von Bismarck, Paul von Hindenburg; the wars, alliances, and results; "an army with a country" and the funny spiked hats are basically the impression I had of Prussia. The development of nation states was a huge theme in that time period that much else (like the potato story) is overlooked.

  3. These photos are absolutely stunning and makes me want to take a trip to Sanssouci right now. Well, not right now because the weather here in Berlin and Potsdam is pretty overcast today, but I definitely need to do another day trip to Potsdam before summer ends.

    Rae | Love from Berlin

    1. I visited on a day with a good mix of blue sky and clouds. I really wish I could have seen inside the palace, though!

      ...and what else was in Potsdam. Sanssouci was such a (good) time sink.